An education plan for the new Prime Minister

The leadership race to date has been relatively light on educational commitments. As the Public First policy tracker shows, from Team Rishi, we had what might be called “continuity Goveism” in an oped from former Ministers Damian Hinds and Nick Gibb. From Team Truss, we have had a pledge to reverse the ban on new grammars. And most recently, both candidates have set out a hawkish plan on China, specifically looking to identify and presumably shrink levels of research collaboration with Chinese academics and businesses, as well as banning the so-called Confucius research centres from UK universities.

In an effort to set out what a broader educational policy menu could look like, we are publishing today a guest piece from education expert (and former Public First Associate Director) John Cope – drawing on his own personal experiences but also a swathe of Public First polling and data. Whoever wins the contest will have to deal with a wide range of educational challenges, and hopefully the ideas contained below, and the Public First research it draws from, can be of use.

Skills and education are the real engine of growth

Words by John Cope, education and skills policy expert and former ministerial advisor.

The leadership contest, and next few years, will be dominated with ‘going for growth’ and the global cost of living crunch, with candidates already out bidding one another on tax cuts. These proposals must therefore be matched by doubling down on education too – apprenticeships and higher technical skills in particular. This includes not just tax cuts, but also tax incentives to invest in talent.

Education also happens to be an area the opposition consistently neglects. It’s a struggle to name a Labour or Lib Dem policy on education and skills. If I were to take a guess, it would be to abolish Ofsted, get rid of GCSEs (and perhaps exams?!), and pay teachers whatever the education unions demand. They might also still want to abolish tuition fees. Who knows.

Regardless, education is conservatism in action and should have as high a profile in the leadership contest as tax cuts. Now we’re down to #Ready4Rishi and #Liz4Leader, this is my advice, backed by Public First’s polling and evidence, of why they need to tone down just talking about tax cuts and embrace investing in talent as the growth plan the UK needs.

As the 2019 manifesto said, talent is evenly spread, but opportunity is not

The reality behind levelling up opportunity in education is the fact 16-year-olds entitled to free school meals (the best proxy for ‘disadvantage’) are on average 18 months of learning behind. And to be clear, this was the situation before the pandemic. Known as the ‘disadvantage gap’, it varies dramatically across the country, from an average of just less than a month in Westminster to just over 26 months behind in Blackpool. Unrealised potential for hundreds of thousands of people lie behind this statistic.

While it’s true the ‘disadvantage gap’ has gradually closed since 2010, at the current rate we are centuries away from opportunity being evenly spread. This isn’t just bad for people who lose out through circumstances, the government’s own research pre-pandemic found if the country levelled up to London where the disadvantage gap is smallest, average lifetime earnings would rise for individuals by c.£110,000, boosting our economy by £20 billion.

Time to go big on employer tax credits to drive up investment in talent

UK employers spend just half the European average on training employees. Less than 20% of 25-64 years olds hold vocational qualifications – a third lower than the OECD average. The proportion of employees receiving off the job training has also declined for years.

While the Apprenticeship Levy has boosted spending on quality training overall, much more is needed. For smaller firms, the challenge they face is cash flow, meaning upfront grants to take on apprentices or invest in high quality training makes all the difference –the £3,000 cash incentive to take on an apprentice during the pandemic should become permanent. For larger employers, it is not the upfront cost, it’s the business case that needs to stack up – generous tax credits for high quality training (similar to those rolled out to incentivise R&D) would turbo charge investment, especially if linked to successful completion and focussed on high quality training.

Complete academisation and back the national tutoring programme to plug education cold spots

Mass academisation is one of the Conservative Party’s most successful education reforms with thousands of schools and teachers given greater freedom and room to innovate. As a result, the best groups of academies are now outperforming grammar schools and many private schools while still taking a comprehensive intake of students. Former Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, planned for full academisation by 2030. This should be sped up with financial incentives. The carrot of funding should be matched with swift support and intervention when standards slip.

The national tutoring programme, a crisis reaction during the pandemic when schools closed, represents an enormous opportunity. Making tutoring something no longer a privilege of the wealthy, but something all students who need extra support have access to would be revolutionary. Polling from Public First demonstrates the phenomenal popularity of tutoring among all parents

Invest in a world class teaching profession

A school or college is just a building without teachers, making them absolutely critical. The Conservative Party has often found itself however in an antagonistic relationship with the profession. While some of this can be put down to a political clash with an often proudly left-leaning group, this shouldn’t be the case when it comes to professional standards.

While the government won’t meet calls by education union for a whopping minimum 12% pay rise, the next Prime Minister should seek to reset the relationship with the profession by setting out an ambitious plan to invest in teacher training and professional development – an area the UK lags behind on internationally but where the Johnson government, quietly, did a lot, and should be shouted about more.

Raise our ambition for the UK as the destination for international students

The UK is second only to the US in being home to world class universities, punching well above our weight. A demonstrable consequence of this is HEPI’s most recent Soft-Power Index showing the UK has educated 57 serving world leaders.

When the government launched its International Education Strategy in 2019, it set an “ambitious” target of hosting at least 600,000 international students a year by 2030. This was met last year. This success masks the reality however that while the UK remains attractive, our global market share is shrinking and we are heavily reliant on the Chinese market. The new Prime Minister should be bold and update the strategy to reflect a new ambition to grow the UK’s global market share as well as diversify beyond China.

Candidates might be tempted to double down on the rhetoric of low-quality courses and fewer students attending. But the truth is that it is possible to crack down on low quality, protect free speech for conservative and unorthodox voices on campuses, and also recognise that the scientific research, innovation, and new companies spinning out of universities is one of our surest routes to growth. A university is also often the biggest employer, and most skilled employer, in towns and semi-rural areas across the red wall.

This is not an exhaustive plan, of course, but together, these areas – tackling the disadvantage gap, employer spending on skills, standards in schools and colleges, world class teaching, and growing the UK’s work class universities – represent the broad areas that need to sit alongside tax cuts as the way to truly level up opportunity and go for growth.